It’s no secret that the pandemic has devastated public transit systems across the country, and Los Angeles’ ever-expanding Metro Rail system is no exception. With many white collar workers now working remotely for all or most of the week, ridership on the area’s subway and light rail lines is still around two-thirds from its pre-COVID peak. The situation is even worse for systems such as Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, which are overly dependent on office workers and employers who have largely abandoned downtown San Francisco.
But therein lies the key to Metro Rail’s long-term recovery. Originally conceived in the 1970s as a BART-like system serving primarily downtown employers and commuters, Metro Rail has since expanded to the far reaches of Los Angeles County. At the same time, downtown LA has become a residential and entertainment destination, not just a job center. As a result, the current rail network serves a variety of riders who travel to many destinations for various reasons. This helps explain why, for the first time since the federal government began keeping records two decades ago, Metro Rail is now portion more people than its Bay Area counterpart.
However, to survive and prosper over the long term, Metro must build on these strengths and abandon the status quo. The best recipe for long-term success – the one we’ve seen in prosperous cities around the world, from Milan to Busan – is to allow more apartment buildings, offices and residential projects to be built. mixed within walking distance of train stations. In addition to maintaining the viability of Metro Rail, more of these walkable neighborhoods will provide environmental, economic and quality of life benefits to their residents.
Yet it is local governments, not Metro, that control what is built around stations. And too often, city leaders are captured by well-heeled landlords who reflexively oppose new developments, especially high-density housing.
Even when cities approve of dense development near subway stops, they often include so much parking space that they don’t care about the transit-friendly location. Take the office project the Los Angeles City Council just approved at Sunset and Wilcox in Hollywood. Of course, it’s a 15-story tower just steps from the red line. But with enough spaces for 1,179 private cars, it’s essentially a car park with a few offices above.
LA and other local governments should be required to ease development and zoning restrictions near train stops, eliminating finicky requirements and lengthy court hearings. With the region experiencing a significant housing shortage and exorbitant prices that have driven low-income residents to other regions and states or, in too many cases, to the streets, enabling more dense and accessible housing is a humanitarian need as much as a transit one. With Metro and other transit agencies facing a ‘fiscal cliff’ as federal COVID aid expires and declining ridership persists, state leaders could ease land use requirements as part of any eventual rescue plan.
As Metro seeks to build expensive but essential additions to its existing rail network, such as extending the Purple Line along Wilshire Boulevard to Westwood and beyond, state leaders could also help the agency to save money by giving it lead licensing authority on construction and streamlined environmental review, as is done in Paris, Madrid and other prosperous, transit-rich cities. Otherwise, projects often overrun budgets and blow deadlines due to endless concessions to hyperlocal interests, lawsuits and byzantine bureaucracy. It’s a microcosm of why the United States is now among the worse of the world’s advanced economies when it comes to building large-scale mass transit projects.
Also in the interest of efficiency, Metro should build more bus rapid transit using dedicated lanes instead of new rail tracks, especially for outlying communities that are not densely populated enough to warrant expensive rail construction. . Dedicated bus lanes can move people as quickly as single-speed trains small fraction Cost.
To attract riders in the short term, Metro will need to address crime and rider safety issues, which reflect broader economic and social challenges as well as ridership shortages. Since the lack of housing supply and, consequently, high rents are the main cause homelessness, state and local policy makers can help Metro contribute to the long-term solution by facilitating more apartments near stations, which will have the added benefit of encouraging more ridership.
Four decades after its launch, LA Metro Rail faces its greatest challenges. Not respecting them will mean a downward spiral of diminishing services and disappearing ridership as well as a betrayal of the vision sold to voters. But if more people can live, play, shop and work near subway stations, the system can achieve long-term stability, provide a return on the region’s multi-billion dollar investment and sustain the promise of rail in Los Angeles.
Ethan N. Elkind directs the climate program at UC Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and is the author of “Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.”